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Rome the Infernal

Sturdily aloft on marble wings, at the Chiesa del Gesu

Chers Amis,

There are two things you should know about Rome.  First, Romans smoke like animals.  They smoke nasty little cigarettes - some of them brown - that smell like reject cigars, and they smoke them down to their nasty little stubs which they drop unceremoniously as soon as they have nearly burnt their fingers.  Then, they continue to speak, smoke puffing from every orifice.  I know all this from direct observation, and if I didn’t, I would from Gaspard’s constant groans of horror.

Yes, that’s the second thing you should know about my journey to Rome – I had Gaspard with me.  It was not my first or even second choice, but the politics of France required it.  If you have been reading the news, you know that France is in the last spasm of legalizing same-sex marriage which they call mariage pour tous (marriage for all).  The deal is done and, after a couple more readings in the Assemblée Nationale and Sénat, the majority will confirm its vote.  The Socialist Party of François Hollande will have delivered on its campaign promise, and everyone will be happy.  Well, everyone except the right wing which has taken to the streets to flog the issue through several hotly contested details such as whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt or should be given fertility assistance by the state-funded health system.

Mingled among all the usual clichés about the imminent death of the French family and the collapse of French society, opponents raise an additional specter, namely, that centuries of French dominance in the art of smoking will crumble overnight if a generation if children is raised without the wholesome examples of a smoking mother and smoking father in the house.

Stalwart guardian of French culture for centuries, the Acadmie Française takes this last charge very seriously.  Consequently, it turned to Gaspard’s wife, Madame Mégot (the Acadmie’s first and most renowned Maître Fumeur - Master Smoker) to lead an inquiry into the subject.  Testimony has been gathered, and evidence implicates the United States with its anti-smoking witch hunt rather than same-sex couples whose children smoke with the same aplomb as those of any other French couple, but the report must be written. With Gaspard in his once-again-unemployed condition, Madame Mégot needed him out of the house for a week to complete her work.

The negotiation between us required only a quick series of subtle parries - she mentioned how much Gaspard enjoyed seeing churches with me, I mumbled something about the discomforts of travel, she reminisced over the care she and her mother provided several years ago when I was sick in Paris - I recognized defeat.  The next morning, Gaspard was at my door as close to clean-shaven as I have ever seen him, carrying a duffle back with a logo of the Kurdish Feminist Communist Front which he got at the May Day Parade and a fresh carton of French cigarettes.

Arriving at Fiumicino Airport for the first time in decades, I was dazzled by its transformation into a modern hub rivaling Pittsburgh.  Our driver into Rome, Marco, displayed (amid Gaspard’s complaints) a complete mastery of gladiatorial rules of the road which make Boston’s driving a national wonder.  Stop signs and one-way street postings serve merely as suggestions, and red lights don’t count if they were once green within living memory.  Being deeply religious, Roman drivers believe that whenever two cars part to create a gap wide enough for another car to pass, God has created a new lane which only the sinful would waste.

We passed clots of tourists huddled at crosswalks awaiting the arrival of an Italian widow in whose shadow they might safely cross.  Surprisingly, pedestrians do have the right of way, and Roman drivers respect it, but only if the right is asserted by stepping off the curb with confident disregard of on-coming cars.  There are no blaring horns or rude gestures.  Cars nearly stop, but keep nudging forward waiting for God to open a new lane between pedestrians.  God prefers motorcycles, which are narrower than cars, and provides them with more opportunities.  Nearly no one gets seriously hurt, and it’s all in good fun.

Visiting museums and churches one sees that Rome has embraced modern technologies and the need for  ever-tightening security.  During my first visit to Rome, one could swing on the statues and lick the paintings without disturbing the guards.  Today, chipped signs warn of video surveillance cameras, some of which are discernible beneath dust.  In the Spada Gallery, an unattended surveillance monitor flickered with pictures of a clarity that matched those from the first moon landing, while its senior guard explained to the cleaning lady how to start tomato plants in cold spring weather.  Younger guards slouched in chairs and texted.  When the flashing of tourist cameras reached lightning-storm intensity, illuminating the “No Photographs Allowed” signs, guards of all ages got up and called out to no one in particular, “hssst…hssst - No photos!  No photos!”  Following ancient traditions, direct eye contact is never made; perpetrators are never brought to justice.  If the paintings become hopelessly faded from all that light, more will be brought up from storage.

To my surprise, I don’t love Rome.  I am fascinated by it.  If I were here for more than a week, I would die of architectural hyperactivity.  I am overwhelmed by its Baroque architecture which is my current quest - smiling cherubs, twisting Solomonic columns, angels aloft on muscular wings, writhing facades  and gilded froth.  Despite its artistic glory, Rome feels provincial.  Tourists from the corners of the earth prowl its streets, but they are merely this era’s tribute bearers to a culture that has endured through major ups and downs for more than 3,700 years.  Unlike London, New York and Paris which have been transformed by immigration, Rome remains very Italian.  Bambini scream and throw tantrums; their parents beam with pride and kiss them.  Legions of old women walk stiffly on sturdy squat legs and speak in gravely baritone voices that would earn each a call-back if auditioning for the role of Don Corleone in The Godfather.  Food is based entirely on tomatoes (albeit, very good tomatoes), except for the famous Roman fried artichoke which is based upon fiberglass insulation.

And yet…there is something inexhaustibly interesting here, so many layers of  time are visible that a visitor needs to focus on one period rather than attempt to see them all.  I cannot fully describe it.  It must be experienced.  In my short visit of a week, I came, I saw a bit, and I failed to conquer my list of sites.  I will return, but to show how fully French I have become, I shall return with a carton of cigarettes and more complaints.

Your Francophilic correspondent from Rome,


Brian Pfeiffer is a free-lance architectural historian who works on historic preservation projects in Nantucket and throughout New England.  Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Brian spends much of his time on islands - Nantucket, Mt. Desert, Maine and the Île de France, specifically Paris, where he has developed an embarrassing infatuation with all things French.  In his more serious moments, he is advises non-profit institutions on the care of their historic buildings and is a contributing writer to Apollo Magazine in London.  In his less serious moments, he wanders with his camera to see as much of the world as he can by foot.